MLS ’12 Preview – Houston Dynamo

Name: Houston Dynamo

Head Coach: Dominic Kinnear

2011 Record: 12-9-13, 2nd Eastern Conference, 7th overall

Twitter Hashtag: #HoustonDynamo

The Dynamo are the defending Eastern Conference champions, but all the talk this offseason has been about other teams.  That’s not to say the winter has been cruel to the team; in fact they will be opening a new soccer stadium this year.  Their captain has returned after a hiatus and their ownership situation is getting a little clearer.  And they have one of the best coaches in the league.

But all is not perfect in Houston.  The team needed a late hot streak to make the MLS Cup, where it offered next to nothing in terms of competing with LA.  Despite their strengths, there are certain weaknesses throughout the team.  Is this team good enough for back-to-back MLS Cup appearances for the first time since, well, the Dynamo did it with the Revs in 2006 & 2007?

Coaching And Front Office: At this point Dominic Kinnear has to be recognized as one of the best coaches in MLS.  Despite not having the financial resources as some of his compatriots (wait, there’s a salary cap?) Kinnear seems to get the most out of his players every year.  Since taking over for Frank Yallop with the old San Jose ‘Quakes, he has taken this franchise to three MLS Cups, won two Supporters Shields, made one CONCACAF Champions League semifinal, and only missed the playoffs once.  He’s a definite strength every time the team takes the field.

Key Losses:  The team lost some depth players this offseason but nothing too earth shattering.  Hunter Freeman goes to Colorado robbing the team of a proven fullback.  Danny Cruz makes the long plane ride to DC in a trade for allocation money, robbing the club of some midfield depth.  Same for Carlo Costly, except in the forwards’ spot.  Where this hurts Houston is if the replacements they’ve brought in so far are unable to add good depth, which is especially important with the team’s CCL commitments.  The positive is that most of the players released freed up cap space.

Key Additions: Although he’s not technically an addition, the re-acquisition of Brian Ching after not protecting him in the expansion draft gives the team a leader and a decent threat at forward.  Another forward option acquired was Macoumba Kandji from Colorado.  Kandji is athletic and talented, and gives the Dynamo a good option off the bench at that position.  Getting Nathan Sturgis from Seattle was a good pick-up, as the midfielder can contribute some minutes to the club across their fixture list. The team also drafted seven players in the 2012 Super- and supplemental drafts.

Projected Starters: Tally Hall picked the wrong year to have his breakout.  His outstanding season was overshadowed by the growth of the younger Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson, making his chances at a national team spot seem remote.  Still Hall is good enough to play internationally (or at least get a shot) and has become one of the best keepers in MLS.  For the back four, Andrew Hainault has locked down a spot with Jermaine Taylor, veteran Bobby Boswell, and Corey Ashe.  Kofi Sarkodie will push for a starting spot or push Ashe forward but after those names there is a definite lack of proven depth.

Brad Davis is the key to the midfield.  Pushing David Beckham for the assist lead the entire season, Davis was a finalist for the MLS MVP award.  Look for him to continue setting up the forwards for scoring opportunities.  Geoff Cameron can play holding midfielder or drop back to the backline.  Former Sounder Sturgis could challenge for a starting spot on the wing.  Davis and Cameron alone make this a good midfield, but their support players are lacking.  Look for draftee Warren Creavalle to possibly make a run at starting.

Up front it will be starting by committee.  Will Bruin was sporadic as a starter last season.  He looked awesome at times and disappeared at others.  He needs to be more consistent this year to earn a starting spot.  Caleb Carr is a good option to start at forward but could be challenged by players behind him.  Kandji may be able to use the move south to find a consistent starting role.  First round draft pick Colin Rolfe could also challenge for starting time.  And of course there’s Brian Ching.  But to be honest, there are a lot of good to decent starting options here but no one great #9 who will convert all of those Davis passes.

Player To Watch:  Will Bruin was drafted last year to be the next Brian Ching, a forward who can score consistently and be a fixture in Houston.  While he is only a second year player, he hasn’t shown signs of that promise yet.  Maybe this is the year he takes a big step forward; if he does that would be a huge help to a team that has some cap space but not a ton for a high-priced player.

Best Case Scenario:  Kandji and/or Bruin and/or Carr and/or Rolfe is the answer the team was looking for at forward.  The added fixtures don’t dent their depth and the reserves and draftees are solid.  They make another run at the MLS Cup but this time push the Galaxy to the brink in the championship, beating the overwhelming favorites for a third MLS Cup as the Dynamo.

Worst Case Scenario:  The striker situation is as bad as feared and Brad Davis can’t turn sublime passes into assists due to lingering injuries.  The team doesn’t have the depth to withstand three competitions and there is no gas for a late season run.  The Dynamo limp into the playoffs in the fifth spot but bow out quickly.

Prediction:  Never doubt a Dominic Kinnear team, but I don’t see this team as having improved substantially while some of their rivals in the East have.  I think they will make the playoffs but the increase in games and lack of substantial depth will prevent this team from back-to-back Eastern Conference championships.  They will finish fourth in the Eastern Conference.

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